Sunday, 19 May 2013

London -- Les Misérables

Greetings Blog Fans.  We had a great day-trip to London yesterday.  The prime focus of the trip was to see Les Misérables at the Queen's Theatre.  We purchased the tickets some time ago (February?) to get good seats to a Saturday matinee and we decided to make a day of it.

If you are careful about which trains are selected, you can get to London and back to Derby in about 1:30 each way-- much faster and easier than driving/parking though a little more expensive (£83 for the 4 of us with our railcard and very advanced purchase).  We took the 8:01/9:34 in and 20:55/22:30 back which gave us about 11 hours in the city.

Perhaps not the most efficient plan, but it suited our needs.  Having spent 12 days in London already, we've ticked (that's checked in American) off our top tier sites.  One "second tier" site on our list was the Museum of London which is where we spent the bulk of our time before the show.

Our entire day from the map above:

A & K:  St Pancras International Train station
B  -- quick Tube ride to Barbican
C -- short walk to the Museum of London
D -- short walk to Postman's Park (recommendation from my friends at Fodor's)
E -- short walk to St. Paul's Tube stop
F -- Tube ride to Tottenham Court Rd
G -- Soho Square -- walk by
H -- walk to the Queen's Theatre for Les Mis
I -- walk to Thai Dream for dinner
J-- Bonus walk back to Covent Garden (had extra time)
K -- Tube back to St Pancras

It was quite a relaxed day.  If anything I allotted too much time for transportation/walking and we had extra time before the show (though I'm not one to cut it too fine/close) and after dinner.

First stop:  the Museum of London

The tagline for the Museum is to "Discover the history of London and its people".  It takes you through the pre-Roman "London before London" days, Roman London,  Medieval times, War-Plague-Fire, the Expanding City, Victorian times, through to present day.  There was a special exhibit on Michael Caine as well, but we didn't have time (or so I thought).

In some ways, it was quite similar to other museums we'd been to in Canterbury, Liverpool, Chester, etc. though on a considerably larger scale (and a bigger focus on London, naturally, but the overall themes are quite similar).

I didn't feel the need to snap a photo of every little knick-knack, but here are a few:

These were skeletal remains of a 30-40 year old women found rather recently (1989) at Staines Road Farm, Shepperton.  They are thought to be from around 3500 B.C. which, of course, is pretty old.  Her teeth were worn, but free from disease.  Her lower leg bones were slightly deformed from perpetual squatting or a childhood nutritional deficiency.  She also had high levels of lead in her teeth which meant she likely grew up elsewhere (Derbyshire was one of the places mentioned).

The Romans expanded their empire to include most of Great Britain around 50 BC or so.  They settled on the banks of the Thames and called in Londinium.  They did their usual Roman things (roads, aqueducts, amphitheaters, etc.) and also built city walls in which the photo above is one of the remaining sections.

For a long time, the city of London was contained within the walls.  Today, it is but a small part and now. "The City" is simply a district (?) that is part of a much larger city.

Side note:  Interesting story -- the Romans had a do-over of sorts in London around AD 60 due to one pissed off, and powerful, lady.  Text, some paraphrased, from wiki:

Boudica was queen of the British Iceni tribe who led an uprising against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire.

Boudica's husband Prasutagus, ruler of the Iceni tribe, who had ruled as a nominally independent ally of Rome, left his kingdom jointly to his daughters and the Roman Emperor in his will; however, when he died, his will was ignored —the kingdom was annexed as if conquered, Boudica was flogged, her daughters were raped, and Roman financiers called in their loans.

In AD 60 or 61, while the Roman governor, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, was leading a campaign on the island of Anglesey off the northwest coast of Wales, Boudica led the Iceni, Trinovantes and others in revolt. They destroyed Camulodunum (modern Colchester), and later Londonium, which she burned and destroyed.

This could have been it for Romans in Britain(nia) but they eventually regrouped and stayed around another 300 years or so.

Fast forwarding to 1630, this is the earliest known painted view of London.  St. Paul's is pre-fire and thus pre-dome.  Note the detail, if you can, on the London Bridge -- decapitated heads/skulls greet you as you cross the river.  (Lovely).

I had heard about the great fire of 1666 but didn't know much about it.  The photo above shows typical housing construction of the day.  As you can imagine, they were quite packed together as well.  The fire started in Thomas Farriner's bakery on Pudding Lane (I'm not making this up) and raged for 4 days and 4/5 of the City was destroyed.  Most people were concerned about getting outside the walls (with their stuff) and not about putting the fire out.

Note:  this essentially resulted in the beginning of the insurance industry (after the fact)

painting of the London fire (apologies, I did not record the details) -- I believe it was contemporary and thought to have been done by someone very familiar with the city, if not there on that night

zooming ahead some more:  very early Black Cab

We enjoyed the museum.  Given our self imposed time constraints we rushed through the more recent sections and perhaps we should have skimmed some of the early years instead.  At any rate, it's certainly worth a visit but is also appropriately classified as "second tier" given all the other options in London.

One of the random bonuses for the day was a photo exhibit outside of the Museum of London.  Here are some of my favorites:

 male panda, Yang Guang, from the Edinburgh Zoo (James Glossop, TheTimes)
Euro 2012 runner-up Mario Balotelli of Italy (big tough guy, somewhat controversial, but did have a phenomenal semi-final game -- one of the few matches I actually watched last year)  [John Silbey, Action Images, Nikon Sports Photographer of the Year]

One of Team GB's cover girls, Jessica Ennnis, crossing the finish line to win gold in the Heptathlon (Mark Pain, Mail on Sunday).  Note that she got married today in Derbyshire (Hathersage)

 London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony (Andrew Baker, Freelance)

Private Stephen Bainbridge lost both of his legs to an improvised bomb in Afghanistan.  Photographer Jason Howe was there to document the story as well as pitch in.  (It took quite some time for him to be allowed to contact Mr. Bainbridge who gave him permission to show these powerful photos).

Saving Private Bainbridge

Queen's Jubilee Street Party in Belfast -- young Tristin Hamilton loses his burger (William Cherry, Presseye)

Thanks to a suggestion in the Fodor's travel forum (a frequent haunt of mine), we stopped at Postman's Park.  I never would have thought to do so (much less found it).

Inside this small park is a 1900 Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice.  We enjoyed going through and reading the various tiles.

 explanatory tile

A typical example above.  There were quite a few of folks perishing in fires and drowning while trying to save others (many were unsuccessful on the saving part as well).

 our favorite due to the quote -- only 11 years old

 quick shot of St. Paul's Cathedral on the way to the Tube

you can get some crazies on the Tube but this just happens to be a cool advert in the station (you can tell it's not real because there's no one on either side of Yoda or standing in the aisle -- the Tube is always crowded in our experience)

After getting our bearings outside of Tottenham Court Rd station, we took a quick walk through Soho Square.   At first, I didn't realize what King Charles II was doing in Soho, but later found out that this dates back to the 1670's and used to be called King's Square.

Quiz:  historical significance of Charles II?  Recall that he was the first King back on the throne after Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians reign after the Civil War (i.e.the restoration of the monarchy).

Recall our nice visit to Boscobel House (link), one of Charles II hiding places while on the run.

half-timbred gardener's hut (still in Soho Square)

the Conversion of St. Paul, blinded by the light on the road to Damascus, originally made for St. Paul's Cathedral's 300th anniversary in 2010

I just noticed that the plaque for this says:

Bruce (Denny) makes limited edition bronzes of all sizes for exhibition and sale.  He is also available for commissioned work and would be happy to discuss his ideas with you.

Anyone?  I don't recall such a brazen  request near a public monument, but maybe that's just me.

random art in a store front -- for those that don't want to dress like a tourist (or anyone else for that matter)

and here we are -- the Queen's Theatre, ready for our matinee of Les Misérables (tough to get a photo here as it is very crowded)

early birds in our seats (I mentioned we were a little too efficient getting across town) -- 6th row baby

The show was absolutely fantastic.  Kuk and I had been here in 2009 when we visited our friends the Lafargues.  We all saw, and enjoyed, the movie over Christmas so I thought the kids were ready for the big time (and they were).  It's such a powerful performance (I must say it got a little dusty in there at times).  So glad we did it.

How's this for hole in the wall?  It's considerably off the beaten path and it's not possible to really stumble on to it.  So how did we find it?

As you know, we like our food.  I've found that "winging it" simply doesn't work often enough so I try to plan ahead.  In London, where 11,673 restaurants are rated on TripAdvisor, it can be a little daunting.  To help narrow it down, I first decide on an area (though usually through TopTable).  Since we had plenty of options (West End, Soho, anywhere between those and St. Pancras), that didn't help that much.

I then picked a cuisine.  We haven't had Thai in awhile; the one restaurant in Derby is just okay and overpriced and I've basically given up eating out in town because of the price/time and what I cook at home isn't so bad anyway.

There were quite a few options in Soho/Chinatown but they seemed a little expensive and still had mixed reviews.  I then found this little gem near Holburn:  "Locals in the know will tell you that Thai Dream is one of the last authentic, family-run Thai restaurants in Bloomsbury."

I liked this review in particular:

If you like:

1) a choice of more than a couple of wines (and ideally over £14 a bottle)
2) the sort of place where the barman/waiter isn't helping his laughing 6 year-old relative to practice handwriting at the bar
3) somewhere where the person cooking the food doesn't bring it to your table in person when its ready
4) a "concept" ambiance, where the music is more consistently themed than ranging between Portishead, James Brown, Dusty Springfield and some other randomness I forget.

...then this isn't the place for you. 

The food was great and reasonably priced (£71).  And yes, it was very much family run.

[Note to the Americans out there -- you will quickly have indigestion if you mentally convert £ to $ for food.  By and large, it's the same "number" for comparable value.  That is, even though that £71 meal cost $110, it's "like" getting a $71 meal in the States, if that makes sense.  Food is expensive here, no doubt.]

. . . so "family run" that the resident 7 year-old bugged his father (?) for the storage keys and began to play outside.  We encouraged Alex to join him before and in-between courses.  They are playing frisbee here.

. . . and later came in to play with electrical circuits.  Every now and then lights would flash and a bell/alarm would go off announcing their latest creation.  Too funny (and very memorable).

The service was also quick enough that we had time to head back to one of Alex's favorite places, Covent Garden.  He likes all the performers (in fact I recall seeing the same magician in the same square from our trip in October).

Keeping the Yoda theme, here's a quick shot of the latest craze:  "levitation".   (The rod is secured in the ground--the bulky cloak hides the support.  It's some serious cantilevered action and generally well done -- it does look like he's levitating).

After a walk around we head back to the Tube and eventually the train.  Back to Derby by 10:30 and home by 10:45.  Tired and happy.

Have a good week everyone.  No post next week as we are heading back to Scotland for the half term break (yippee!).

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Alex's Birthday Party

Greetings Blog Fans.  Short and sweet this week.  No grand adventure to report as the weekend was dedicated to Alex's party.  He turns 11 next week and we celebrated by having a party and sleepover on Saturday.  As you can tell from above, a good time was had by all.

Football kit and cake (and, er, dirty laundry room) before the party.

We ended up going back to the Willows Sports Centre again this year.  They got two 20-minute halves of football (soccer) and a 20+ minute round of laser tag.  18 boys all together with 4 from the neighborhood and 13 from school (plus Alex).   The indoor football was a little crowded but they had fun.

Photo-op at intermission (half time).  You can see Alex's team was up 3-2 (and they would go on to win 4-2).  Alex's pre-selected team was slightly stacked and quickly went up 3-0.  The staff member referee then joined the other side; first as keeper/goalie and then on offense to even things up.  He did a good job of helping without trying to take over.

Both Kuk and I commented how well the party went even with a mixture of neighborhood/school friends.  Last year was fine, but this year seemed better (and more relaxed for us).  His school friends were different this year (recall, new school) but perhaps it was simply another year of maturity.

Here's Alex scoring a penalty kick during the competition at half time.  He actually netted 3 and made it to the final round.  He's improved quite a bit since last year.

Here he is lined up in defense.  I was pleased/surprised at how well he did.  He was holding his own.  He even stole the ball from the staff member one time who jokingly picked him up and pretended to carry him off.  He had a great time and I think the others did as well.

action shot (at least for most)

 lighting the cake after the laser tag and lunch (chicken nuggets, chips and pizza)

And blowing out the candles -- they have a different (and I would say odd) tradition here.  The cake is not consumed at the party.  They take it back and slice it up, put it in a napkin and then in a gift bag with all the candy, etc. that you would expect.   So, it comes home all smushed up and I imagine rarely eaten.  Oh well.  Seems odd, but maybe that's just me.

After the party, the neighborhood boys (five now as one couldn't come to the party) joined Alex for a sleepover.  This is the next morning and as usual they all (save one) have their iPods out and are playing away.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well they did.  They all got along fine, listened reasonably well and didn't break anything!  Well done, lads!  I imagine they crashed around 11 and got up around 6 (ugh, but expected).   No issues whatsoever.

I treated them to my usual special breakfast of crepes ("pancakes" in UK-speak) with nutella, strawberries, bananas and whipped cream.  They were impressed and Alex was proud so that was a winner too.

Meal of the (Last) Week

new J.O. dish this week -- spicy chicken with lentils.  Turned out more brown than the photo in the book which hurts the appearance but the taste was pretty good.  The chicken was seasoned with cayenne pepper (and probably a little too much).  The lentils have carrots, tomatoes and spinach with a little rosemary as well.  Smoked pancetta, asparagus and yogurt on top to round it out.  Yum.

Have a good week everyone.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Canterbury and Dover -- A weekend in Kent

Hello, Blog Fans.  We've just returned from a quick visit to Canterbury and Dover in the county of Kent (SE corner of England).  Today (Monday) is a Bank Holiday so the extra day gave us the chance to venture out for the weekend.

We left on Saturday and drove to Canterbury (B).  We stayed at a very nice B&B (Bluebells Guesthouse).  We toured Canterbury the rest of the day.  On Sunday, we spent the day in Dover (C).  Normal people would have taken in some sites on Monday, but, alas, we simply returned home as laundry, chores, homework and shopping beckoned prior to starting the new week.

The drive back was just over 3 hours.  Unfortunately, a key section of the M25 was closed on the way down.  Given the warnings of delays on the M1, we picked a more easterly route that cost us about an hour.   Oh well.

Canterbury -- what comes to mind?  For me, it is the Canterbury Tales and having to memorize the first 20-odd lines of the prologue in 12th grade English.

WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Right.  What the heck is that?  Ultimately, I'm a knuckle-dragging engineer who doesn't have the time or interest for that.  But, being the curious sort, I did happen to notice a new "modern" version that I picked up for £4.99:

Sacrilege for sure, but it's making some sense now (and funny too).  For those that may not remember, the Canterbury Tales tell the story of a motley crew on a Pilgrimage to visit the grave of St. Thomas (Becket) in Canterbury.  More to the point, it is a tale of their tales (Miller, Knight, Wife of Bath, etc.)

Thomas Becket was a clerk who worked his way up to the position of the Archbishop of Canterbury.  King Henry II thought he was on his side but found that Thomas was very much on the Church rights side.  They quarreled over many things including the right to try crimes by the Church (see the Constitutions of Clarendon).  The King uttered something to the effect of "can anyone help me get rid of this guy?" and it was taken quite literally (1170).

So, clerk --> Archbishop --> Martyr -->  Saint

Tales of his healing powers (in death) grew and Canterbury's popularity grew as many made the pilgrimage to see for themselves.

Alrighty then, enough from me.  On to some photos. 

Note:  parents don't forget (like me) to print out your voucher for your kids to get into the Cathedral for free (link).  General visit info here..

at the entrance Gate to the courtyard of the Cathedral

 in the nave, looking down towards the quire

a monument to Thomas Becket ("The Martyrdom")-- the 4 swords of the knights that attacked him, including the one that shattered during the fatal blow

a view of the Cloister

 back down the Nave

in the quire

the symbolic candle left burning to mark the spot of his shrine (that Henry VIII had destroyed)

 stained glass above the Corona Chapel

The Black Prince -- Edward, Prince of Wales, the eldest son of Edward III and an exceptional military leader

We enjoyed the Cathedral and learning more about Thomas Becket since we were fairly ignorant to begin with.  We've seen quite a few the last 2 years and they do tend to run together a bit though this one has the whole Becket thing going for it. 

We still hold the Yorkminster in high regard and I remember the tour there talking about how York was equal or ahead in the church power struggle, but then Canterbury lucks out by having its Archbishop murdered and the rest is history.

After the Cathedral, we walked over to the Canterbury Heritage Museum.  What a great find!  We really enjoyed this museum which walks you through from the Stone Age to present day Canterbury.

 Canterbury during Roman times (AD 300 or so)

 post-Roman, deserted Canterbury; the early Anglo-Saxons opted for a more rural life

Note:  in 597 Augustine was sent by the Pope (in Rome) to Kent to spread the word among the pagan Anglo-Saxons.   (As you can see from the map up top and as a re-occurring theme, this area is the closest point to the continent so is a likely landing spot).  King Aethelbert allowed the mission and Christianity began to spread -- over 10,000 were baptized on Christmas Day!

 circa 700 AD -- the Anglo-Saxons begin to set up home inside the city walls

I didn't note the date, but it's obviously later with the Cathedral now built up

My favorite part of the museum was this modern, simple 60-ft frieze that tells the tale of Thomas Becket.

 Thomas struck down

King Henry's penance

 the early tomb/shrine up top (and the early selling of relics down below)

just in case you'd forgotten that capitalism has been around a long time, here is one of the early "I made the Pilgrimage" pins

quick aside:  Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, made famous by Ian Fleming, were race cars made in Canterbury in the 1920s.  In Fleming's book, it first "flew" to escape a traffic jam on the Canterbury ring road!

After the museum we walked around town a bit, including around this nice little park.  They had a flat boat "punting" down the "river" in about 6" of water (or so it looked). 

We stopped off at an old bookstore (Chaucher's Bookshop) and found a 1962 OS map of Derby and an early 1900's travel book for the Peak District.  I didn't purchase either though.  We then went to Waterstones though and I did buy the revised Canterbury Tales along with a book for Alex.

On our way back to our B&B, we also made a quick stop at

the Canterbury Castle -- Norman, after the Battle of Hastings (1066)

After a quick rest, we walked back into town for dinner.  We ate very well on this trip (as you know, this is a key part of my research).  On the first night, we ate at Deeson's -- excellent British cuisine (no, it's not an oxymoron).  Service was also very good -- I'm beginning to think we are simply getting the short end of the stick here in Derby.

Kuk's seafood platter starter

and my duck main course (I tend to order duck when going out as I haven't found a good source or way to cook it for that matter)

The meal was very good.  I pride myself on trying everything, but I should have pulled up short on this one.  I saved the ball on the right for last.  It's a duck "faggot".  Faggots are made from meat "off-cuts" and offal (i.e. stomach lining).  You usually get a bonus of a few extra organs mixed in there.  Duck haggis I guess.  Interesting, yes; tasty, not so much.  I'll chalk that one up to cultural differences.  That was an exception, however, as the rest of the food was fantastic.

Sunday -- Dover Castle and the Cliffs

We awoke Sunday to a glorious day.  Sunny and in the mid-60s.  Perfect.  First stop, was Dover Castle.  It was about 25 minutes from Canterbury.  We got there slightly before opening (10) and had to wait to park but we got in.  After getting our (free, thanks English Heritage membership) tickets, we headed straight for the Operation Dynamo tunnel.

view of Dover from the castle grounds (queue for the tunnel is forming on the left).  Dover itself is not much to write home about.  Being the closest entry point from the continent, it is a port town.  But, it does have a neat castle and those cliffs you've heard about.

 ready to enter -- unfortunately we are at the front as we just missed the last tour

No photos allowed inside.  I really enjoyed the tour and learned quite a bit (never thought I'd get so much WW II history along the way).  

Backing up a bit, the castle site dates way back to the Iron Age.  There is also a lighthouse still standing from Roman times.   Work began shortly after William the Conqueror but the castle really took off under Henry II in 1160.

In Napoleonic times (end of 18th century), significant rebuilding took place which included "building" tunnels underneath the castle to be used as barracks and storage.  Further tunnels were made during the early stages of WW II and they were used extensively during that time.

The multi-media tour through the tunnel taught us about Operation Dynamo which involved evacuating soldiers from Dunkirk in 1940.   Now, you don't tend to think of a massive retreat as being a success; however, the British Expeditionary Force had been cut off.    Over 300,000 were evacuated.

 lone seagull on the rooftop outside the tunnel exit


view of the cliffs and the port of Dover from the Admiralty Lookout

we've now walked up to the medieval area -- this is Church of St. Mary-in-Castro and the Roman pharos (lighthouse)

view of the main castle and Great Tower -- one of the last rectangular keeps

 Alex manning the lookout

 and on the throne

looking back at the church and pharos

strong seaside breeze snapping the Union Jack

up on the roof top, looking out

After the castle, we headed to the National Trust Visitor's Centre (link) for a walk along the cliffs.  Now, as you can imagine, the best way to see the cliffs is not to walk on top of them.  That would be from the sea or air like the photos (snagged from the web) below:

However, it was such a nice day and I figured we see a little bit of the cliffs so off we went.  Our destination was the South Foreland Lighthouse 2 miles down.

ready, set, go

to prove that I actually went as well

a little hard to tell, but this is a fairly significant "crater" along the way (we took that route on the way back)

 different cliff (same family)

 and the lighthouse -- notice all the kites to the right (those aren't bugs)

 Father and Son and a rare moment to soak up some Vitamin D -- ah, the good life

 my view from my resting spot

after a rest and some ice cream, we are on our way back

one of the better cliff views along the walk
 Mom and Daughter  (Nicole has overtaken Kuk in height but the slope of the land is exaggerating that fact)

we walked back at the mid-cliff level which took us by the port/docks -- you could hear all the announcements about boarding/leaving/arriving in English and French

Funny note:  both Kuk and Nicole's mobile phones sent them a text while on the walk.  Kuk was welcomed to France; Nicole, Belgium.  I guess the international border isn't too far out in the water and the phone coverage got confused.

As you can tell, it was simply a gorgeous day.  As we were driving away, a very quick fog rolled in.  Unfortunately, I couldn't get the best shot but this will have to do.   Amazing how quick that rolled in.  Glad we weren't walking when that happened!

We had another nice meal once we made it back to Canterbury.  This was at Pinocchio's.  Good food, good service.  Two for two.

 veal and eggplant for me

pasta with clams for Kuk

As always, we wish we had more time but we were glad to go even with a 3-day weekend.  The weather was great and we had a good time.  We realize that there is so much more to see in Kent, but we can't see it all, at least not this weekend.  Hopefully, we can return.

Thanks for reading and have a good week everyone.  I've got some Canterbury Tales to read . . .